Archive for the ‘Grace Paley’ Category

Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like  getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling,  a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)


Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the deadand the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.


I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.


There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:

How like you to be kind

Seeking to reassure

It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.



At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)


Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:

peering into each other’s faces,

slow to let go of each other’s hands



Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”


How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death

another space emptied by loss 

Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.




No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.


Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —

no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums 

–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.



I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:



Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.


One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:



A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).


I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:



Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.




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poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot



For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day





What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.


When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.


What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.


Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.


I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.


This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.


But she keeps her mouth shut.


The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.


Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.


Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.


IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.







If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–


Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.


She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.


She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.


Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.


Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.


You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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Last weekend I went on a spending spree in New York City.  Unfortunately for the economy, it was a poem-elfing kind of spending spree.  I hoard poems for future occasions the way some people keep money in special accounts for emergencies.  I decided to “spend” my poems in our most literary of cities.


Here’s my Sunday in New York, in reverse order.


Walking back to my hotel from Central Park, I came across an enormous, street-closing parade celebrating El Salvador.  And here was this little sweetie, just finished with her gig on a parade float.  I handed her Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” and asked if I could take her picture.  Living in New York, she is surely used to nutcases and was agreeable to my request.  I told her the poem was about a rare beauty.  I hope she hangs on to it her whole life.


I love that little mouth, so serious above the poem.  “A mind at peace with all below/ A heart whose love is innocent!”


Earlier in Central Park I left Grace Paley’s “Whistlers” on a tree by the Bethesda Fountain.

poem is on tree in foreground


I’ve had this poem for years and years and find it funny but I still don’t completely understand the last stanza.


Near the stairs above the fountain I left Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”

poem is in the shadows on the right-hand side of picture, halfway up


Hopkins poem is about nature.  But putting it here made me think of why I love New York.  “All things counter, original, spare, strange” : could there be a better description of New Yorkers?


The other great thing about New York is that no one bats an eye when behavior is unusual.  Even so, I was a little self-conscious taping a poem to a seat on the subway.  It was a rush job (just before I exited) and the photo didn’t come out well.


Richard Frost’s “For a Brother” is one of the first poems I collected.  Why I was drawn to it, I’m not entirely sure, because I have four wonderful brothers and I would never call any one of them “a sack of black rats’ balls”  or “a tank of piss.”  Anyway, Frost’s  long-buried feelings seemed to belong in a New York subway.


I began the day at the Ground Zero Memorial.  My picture does it no justice.  The footprints of the two towers have been transformed into two sunken pools.  Water cascades over the black walls in a beautiful metaphor of healing.  I hope those who lost loved ones on 9/11 find it a peaceful place.  Art and beauty that come from tragedy are not necessarily consolations but surely companions to suffering.  For that reason I left Elizabeth Bishop’s “I Am in Need of Music.”

poem is on wall between the two people


The poem is music itself:  “Of some song sung to rest the tired dead / A song to fall like water on my head.”


The most surprising display at the memorial plaza was the Survivor Tree.  One single tree, a Callery pear, survived the attack.  Nowhere else would so many people crowd to take pictures of an ordinary tree.  Good place to leave Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways.”

poem is on silver railing around the tree, behind the gal in black


“Half hidden from the eye” could describe the tree before the attack and the last lines could speak to all the “ordinary” people lost on that day—dishwashers in the Windows of the World, receptionists at Cantor Fitzgerald, office cleaners, elevator operators, underperforming traders—and to those who loved them, love them still.


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My nephew got married a few weeks ago in a joyful rumpus of a wedding followed by a mellower brunch the next day. I waited till the last minute to poem-elf the couple, and then I was disappointed I couldn’t get in their locked car to hide poems.  But it worked out.  In the absence of rice, confetti and clattering beer cans, I attached two poems to their car bumper for a quieter but more romantic send-off.



The first poem, Coleridge’s “Answer to a Child’s Question”  captures the giddy joy of the couple, who have known each other since grade school and still seem delighted to be in each other’s presence:


At the risk of love overkill, I love the line,  “I love my Love, and my Love loves me!”  Such a simple sentence, but it trips off the tongue like a jumprope rhyme.


In tribute to the bride and groom’s parents, both long-married, I left Grace Paley’s “Here. ”  I left the poem also as a happy forecast for the newlyweds’  future:


I don’t know if the newlyweds much liked this second poem—they removed it and hid it in my sister’s car before they left.  Ceci’s far being a woman “in the old style”—Paley’s heavy breasts, stout thighs and nicely mapped face—but she does have grandchildren on her lap and a husband she still loves.  Let me say to the newlyweds, in case this second poem didn’t please you:  I can’t wish you any better happiness than this beautiful expression of long-married love.


I  like how the two poems work together:  the first is joyful but controlled and structured, like a wedding, like visions newlyweds have of their married life.   Paley’s poem is as loose as her figure.  It speaks of a love just as vibrant as Coleridge’s but one that’s relaxed and settled in.


I didn’t get a picture of the bride and groom in all their glory, but I did get a picture that will give you a good idea of how fun this celebration was:


Yes, it was a pop the pins out of your updo kind of party.  Whosever bobby pins these are sure didn’t miss them on the dance floor.


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poem is on middle-left post


by Grace Paley

I am afraid of nature

because of nature      I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren

are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years

in this way I escaped fear


Like a character in an old TV sitcom who’s got an engagement ring in his pocket and no opportunity for presenting it, I’ve been waiting to set loose this poem in a city for months now.  Finally a weekend in Chicago afforded me a chance to post it.


Grace Paley, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, spent most of her life in the Bronx and was the quintessential New York leftie.  But with no plans to visit her hometown where her poems belong, I left her mark in the Second City.  Even less appropriate, I left the poem at the base of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, that promenade of flagship stores and beautiful hotels housing shoppers, where throngs of midwesterners unaware of the recession stroll politely up and down. I’m sure Paley would be more comfortable passing out leaflets against nuclear proliferation than passing by storefront temples to the capitalist system. After all, she was a self-described “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.”  She wrote about ordinary people, not wealthy ones, and with her halo of crazy hair, looked more like a homeless person than a determined consumer.


But a city is a city, built to outlast the changes inherent in nature, and so her little poem travels well.  I keep thinking how “Fear” relates to the Hopkins poem I recently posted.  Both Paley and Hopkins see nature as a memento mori, but only Hopkins embraces that.  Paley, with her disarming honesty, runs away.


This modest little poem led me to some big questions and deep thoughts.  Why am I sometimes afraid of the night sky?  Why are shopping malls lit to make it seem time never passes? How much of my life is spent in activities that actually nourish me and how many are just ways to escape fear of death?  If we’re always surrounded by traffic noise, lights, rushing people, busy-ness, and man-made materials like bricks, concrete, marble, glass, and steel, how can we recognize our connection to things that decay and things that are truly infinite?


But I did a lot of shopping anyway.


Presumably Paley made her peace with nature and mortality because she spent the last 19 years of her life in Vermont and she’s been dead for the past three.  Reading the old obituaries, I was surprised to find she’s known primarily as a writer of short stories and not as a poet, which is how I know her.  I feel like a Van Winkle who fell asleep during Bedtime for Bonzo and woke up asking if it was true that Ronald Reagan got involved in politics.


Paley’s poems, like her stories, showcase her deft ear for how people talk and what they talk about.  Her dialogue is pitch perfect.  Reading her poems sometimes seems like reading a transcription of a subway conversation or a neighbor’s account of last night’s scuffle in the hallway.  Her work doesn’t always “feel” like conventional poetry, like heightened language edited within an inch of its life. Paley never did anything conventionally. She may seem a mere conduit for phrases floating through everyday life and less an artist creating and arranging ideas and words. But that’s a tribute to her light touch and invisible hand.


I love the pithy little “Fear,” but it’s not the best example of the spoken quality of her poems.  I include another to give you a better idea.



My Father Said


Why not my father said    so

you’ll be like them    pointing

to all the aunts as round as

city water barrels    laughing

no disgust or disapproval

only prophecy


for instance    your aunt Esfere

eighteen    just off the boat    needed

a corset    ashamed    she didn’t know

the custom    your mother said    go

Zenya    measure    put your arms around

her middle but bring a string for where

your hands don’t meet    well soon


she was married    dear girl what

can you do    you’re made the same

maybe a little lighter    like

your mama    listen to me    once

once long ago    in times cold like

ice    like iron    such softness

that’s why we loved our wives


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